Knoxville Volunteer Rescue Chief Tony Blair looks tense as he holds fast in the jolting cab, barking into two radio transmitters at the same time, his arms crossed in a tangle of flesh and spiral cord. He and Medical Captain Dean Roberts are answering the day's first call and, thankfully, they're still inside what Blair calls the "golden hour"--the critical first 60 minutes of any rescue operation.
Attended by siren squalls and the burnt-rubber stench of harried brakes, Roberts steers an unwieldy green first responder truck through narrow curves and densely populated intersections before hitting the I-40 westbound on-ramp from Rutledge Pike and burying the speedometer needle past 85. He, too, understands that in this business, every second counts.
When the pair pulls up to the sun-bleached skeleton of a home-in-progress off Clinton Highway, KVRS Assistant Chief John Whited is already on the roof, helping four Rural Metro Emergency Medical Technicians strap a shirtless construction worker into a Stokes basket--a stretcher used for lifting and lowering emergency patients. Whited deftly hitches a canvas "spider" harness to the basket and guides the construction crew's crane operator as he hooks the spider and lowers his stricken co-worker to the ground.
"We treat him like he has a broken back," Roberts says of the worker, who--it later turns out--suffered relatively minor injuries when a roof truss collapsed and pinned him. "You always treat for the worst and hope for the best."
Most of the 80-plus members of the Knoxville Volunteer Rescue Squad have seen the best, the worst, and all shades in between. From the brutal and horrifying (in 1994, Roberts helped extricate a West Knoxville youth who was castrated and crippled when 75 feet of guard rail tore through his out-of-control pickup), to the tragic (the squad's dive team once worked for six years to recover the body of a drowned child), to the comic and the outright absurd (cats in culverts, puppies in ditches, keys locked in cars), they've probed the outer limits of human experience in the caves and quarries, hills and highways of East Tennessee.
But despite a four-decade run as Knox County's reigning rescue specialists, despite the daunting credentials and scrolling certifications of members, despite tens of thousands of unpaid man-hours logged every year, KVRS remains an unknown quantity, a footnote at the end of newspaper stories or a passing reference on local TV. At a recent emergency services meeting held to discuss the fate of local emergency medical services under the proposed city-county unification charter, Blair says the officials present "didn't even know what we did. They didn't even realize we needed to be invited."
For the record, the Knoxville Volunteer Rescue Squad has been serving Knox and surrounding counties since 1956 and is the region's largest volunteer organization. What sets KVRS apart from similar squads is its single-minded, pro-active approach to rescue operations.
"Basically, rescue squads came into being in Tennessee to help look for lost people and to drag rivers," Blair says, noting that membership was often made up of retired and volunteer firemen. "They were usually 'good old boys' clubs. We've always striven for a generally younger, more innovative membership."
Adds Whited, "We don't have ambulances. We don't have tankers or any of that other stuff. We specialize in rescue. We don't want to duplicate services provided by other local agencies."
In 1982, KVRS further separated itself from its backwoods brethren--and most rescue squads across the country, for that matter--by creating specialty teams so that members could cultivate expertise in one or two areas rather than spread limited time and resources across the spectrum of rescue techniques.
While all members are skilled in basic disciplines (especially vehicle extrication--about 55 percent of the squad's 3,000 yearly calls are car accidents), everyone joins at least one of the specialty crews: the cave and vertical rescue team; the heavy rescue team, for building and trench collapse; the ground search team; the water and dive team; the communications team; or the support team, which provides everything from food to medical equipment to lights and power generators for KVRS and other emergency agencies during long-term operations.
The team's innovative training approach, as well as its success in the field, has garnered plenty of attention outside Knoxville. Over the last few years KVRS has worked on several internationally distributed textbooks and demonstration videos; in 1995 it was spotlighted in two syndicated television programs (Rescue 911 and Emergency Response) as well as toasted on the cover of Rescue, the field's most prominent national magazine.
That list doesn't include the accomplishments of individual team members, many of whom have taught national seminars, published instructional literature, and even trained members of other area emergency departments.
"Our training and our equipment really set us apart," says Whited, one of four members who will teach at this year's Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads convention. "You won't find better--especially not for the money."
Like slain Nordic warriors supping in Valhalla, KVRS members gathered at the station on a lazy afternoon are given to blood-stained reminiscence. But in these all-too-vivid recollections of battles past, the horrors of torn flesh and lifeless bodies are lightened only part of the time by rays of redemption and triumph. Whited remembers his first trench rescue, digging out a utility worker buried up to his chest in dirt and raw sewage, his leg twisted around a ladder at the bottom of a 19-foot trench.
"Fourteen hours in some very nasty conditions," Whited says. "He lost his leg, but he survived. We have an annual Christmas party and he comes by every year to thank us."
Training Captain Matt Lovitt recalls a wreck that sent an 18-wheeler and a Mustang loaded with passengers over a steep bank, pinning the truck driver against a tree and scattering mangled bodies across the hillside: "Everywhere you'd start to walk, you'd find someone else."
It's an endless, wretched litany--the high school student whose car was crushed like an empty can by a cement mixer; sandwiched car seats pried apart in search of victims; the man who was found wrapped in crimson-spattered sheet metal, standing at rigid post-mortem attention in the cab of his overturned pickup.
"If you've ever seen a dog with its insides hanging out on the side of the road, remember that it happens to people, too," Roberts says. "It's the sickest thing you've ever smelled, and it stays in your nose and on your clothes for hours. Jeff [Beeler, vehicle captain] calls it the 'smell of death.'"
When some of the members talk about their experiences, they speak with an air of casual detachment, as if the things they've seen actually happened to characters in a book or actors on TV. At times, there's even a trace of sunless humor in off-hand references to decapitations and severed limbs.
"Some might say I'm morbid," says Roberts. "But if you don't have a release, you explode. You can't let the ugly parts get to you."
But some tragedies inevitably hit closer to home, such as the local diver who drowned near Cherokee last year when he inadvertently swam inside an underwater cave and lost his way. "I lost some sleep on that one," says Roberts, "because I knew it could have just as easily been me."
In one sense it did happen to Roberts, as well as every other member of the water rescue team and perhaps the entire squad. Last summer, KVRS's Corey Berggren was diving in the Blount Avenue quarry when he suffered a seizure brought on by an improper mixture of gases in his oxygen tank. When Berggren shot straight to the surface from a depth of 212 feet, his body couldn't withstand the stress of such a brutally rapid pressure change and he died of heart failure on the scene.
Whited says Berggren had authored instructional scuba-diving manuals and was considered one of the best-trained divers in the southeast. He was also the first member in the squad's 40-year history to die on the battlefield. When asked about him today, his teammates speak with a strange mix of detachment, muffled sadness and restless unease. A shiny, wood-mounted commemorative plaque, inscribed with Berggren's name, stands alone in the center of the squad's front-room trophy case, part memory and part reminder.
Berggren's death and the other attendant horrors and pitfalls of the rescuer's world seem to raise doubts as to the sanity of the 60-some-odd men and 15 women who--for little recognition and less pay--regularly stick their necks on the chopping block in the service of KVRS. The reasons members give for volunteering vary as much as their names and faces, and the psychological profile isn't an easy one to peg. But there is a certain stripe of benevolence, tempered in varying degrees by vicarious urges, tinkerer's instincts and competitive spirit--a mutant strain of altruism that seems to run throughout the entire squad.
"It's a way to channel your competitiveness--there are a lot of ex-athletes around here," says Whited. At 29, the slender former Farragut High School football player may not be a linebacker anymore, but that man-in-the-middle determination is still chiseled in the obstinate set of his jaw.
"You have experiences you won't get anywhere else in any field. It's an addiction. You can't get any higher than when you've just saved a life."
The parking lot of KVRS headquarters off Rutledge Pike is full of he-man four-wheeler Jeeps, pickups, Blazers and other rugged off-road stalwarts. Inside, however, there's a surprisingly diverse group of raw recruits--pretty young girls, grizzled men in ball caps, middle-aged housewives, dudes barely of college age in T-shirts and khakis--seated in a half-circle listening to squad member Kevin Burns explain the finer points of rappelling equipment and technique.
After the lecture, Burns, Whited and Lovitt lead the group to a 30-foot wooden tower out back for a hands-on demonstration. Several squad members clad in trademark gray T-shirts, white helmets and green pants swarm the tower, which is crisscrossed with canvas straps and dangling sundry nylon ropes.
Fifteen minutes later, five yellow climbing ropes are hanging from the rear of the tower and a thicker blue one extends diagonally down the front, the far end having been wrapped around a phone pole in the corner of the yard some 70 feet away. The slanting blue rope is called a traverse line, a device used by rescue workers to lower accident victims from high places. In this particular demonstration, the make-believe patient happens to be an unsuspecting young reporter.
Strapping the dupe securely into a Stokes basket (a surprisingly flexible plastic shell with a spare aluminum skeleton), Burns connects patient to rope with a canvas spider and a pulley. Guided by two additional lines--one hanging directly beneath it and one leading back to the tower--the basket descends slowly and smoothly through a crown of leafy branches and into the sun-dappled yard below.
Properly edified, the 20 recruits file back inside for a written test. They're in the middle of a 16-week orientation program, and they'll each go through more than 100 hours of training before pulling their first shift. KVRS orientation is an exercise in forbearance, as even recruits with prior specialty training must rehash the rudiments before strapping on scuba tanks or climbing up ropes on official business. No one in this class will so much as touch a rescue truck (unless it's with a squeegee or a sponge) before September.
According to Lovitt, each trainee also has to be certified in several basic skills, including CPR and emergency vehicle operation (imagine driver's ed with fire trucks). Those who endure and become full-fledged members will have to complete "first responder" medical training within the year.
"We started out with 100 people when we signed up this class," Lovitt says. "I expect 10 to 15 will actually finish and be assigned to a shift, and several of those will end up resigning. It gets tough when you're working eight to 10 hours a day, and you're required to volunteer at least 12 hours a week."
But even for seasoned veterans, the training never really ends. Each member must be recertified in basic disciplines every two years, and it's not unusual to pull up to KVRS headquarters on a scorching afternoon and see squad members in helmets and heavy yellow canvas jackets systematically ravaging a dilapidated junker with crowbars, saws, and the famous "jaws of life."
And then there are the specialty teams, which meet once a month for practice and coordination. The dive team runs its paces plumbing the depths of flooded quarries, while the vertical rescue squad hops off the tower or pokes around local caves.
For both heavy and vertical rescue team practice, squad members built "the tank"--a system of narrow plastic pipes and metal cylinders that feed into a car-sized concrete box and a rusted-out septic tank beneath the tower. Would-be rescuers rappel from the top or crawl in through the side while sadistic squadmates pump in smoke or water, simulating the hazards of confined space operations.
"Each team has basic standards and protocols that have to be met before they will allow new members to take an active role on calls," says Blair. "But there's no single level of 'readiness.' There's always another level of experience you can attain."
Some of the teams rely heavily on outside training. Although Water Rescue Lieutenant John Yu is a Public Safety Diving Instructor, the squad sends new trainees through courses taught by Dive Rescue International. All of the vertical rescue basics, however, are administered by Whited, who boasts countless certifications in his specialty, all of which reaffirm that this is a man who really knows the ropes of ropes.
But Whited isn't the only savvy veteran on the squad. Vertical rescue team members speak in reverent tones when they mention Jack Thomison, a rugged, square-jawed spelunking enthusiast who, someone jokes, "took God in his first cave." Thomison, along with wife/fellow squad member Nancy, has been exploring muddy nether kingdoms for more than 25 years, and his subterranean grace, agility and sheer economy of motion are legend at KVRS. "When Jack caves, there's no wasted effort," says Whited. "And if he's got a spare moment, you can bet he's probably underground."
As head of the squad's highest profile team, Yu is one of the few KVRS members who occasionally receives public recognition--he was recently nominated and selected as a torch-bearer for the 1996 Olympic Games through the United Way's Community Heroes program. But no one begrudges this bright-eyed Chinese American his due--hundreds of pounds of water pressure can wreak havoc with the fragile human body, and diving is probably the most dangerous job in rescue.
Even though the water rescue team was called 37 times in 1995 alone, Whited says the squad hasn't had to drag for a body in more than three years--thanks in large part to Yu and powerhouse divers such as Roberts.
Speaking to a class of recruits on a warm Wednesday evening, Yu is colorful, vibrant, and often spell-binding, holding the trainees rapt with stories, jokes, and impromptu demonstrations. He compares diving Fort Loudon Lake to "sticking your head in a toilet bowl" (referring to the visibility, not the stench); describes an automobile accident that tore out his transmission and broke his arm in 100 places ("My arm looked like my last name, but now my car has air conditioning"); and recommends Crest toothpaste as a mask defogger ("It works better and its smells pretty good--if you like Crest").
But the most riveting moment of his presentation--the one that will probably convince all of these wide-eyed rescue neophytes that life holds no grander drama than that which is enacted on the emergency diver's dark watery stage--comes when Yu describes the big rescue call that dissipates a sleepy fog in the dead of the night.
"The first thing out of my mouth is always 'Oh, shit!'" he says with characteristic joviality. But as quickly as his broad grin had materialized, it disappears. Slowly, with deliberate, penetrating clarity, he continues: "Then you lay back, and it sinks in. You look at your watch and you say to yourself, 'The clock is ticking.'"
The same unyielding determination that sends John Yu plunging into murky depths or John Whited clambering up the side of a mountain also fosters in the two men a dogged protective instinct when it comes to the future of their squad. And they may need every ounce of fighting spirit they can muster; with the city-county merger looming and local government purse strings drawing ever tighter, KVRS faces threats far removed from uncharted quarries or cascading trench walls.
At present, the squad is funded by a mixture of city and county monies, United Way allocations, and private donations (the 1996 budget breaks down to about $45,000 city, $100,000 county, $89,000 United Way), and Blair says procuring new revenue gets a little bit tougher every year.
In the meantime, Blair says the proposed city-county unification charter doesn't address the oversight and funding of KVRS. The charter calls for the consolidation of county emergency services, but it doesn't say whether volunteer organizations will be receiving any public funds.
And although Blair says county officials told him the proposed merger probably wouldn't affect the squad's status, lingering jurisdictional questions may yet spell trouble for the organization as the Knoxville Fire Department--the only other large agency equipped for vehicle extrication--takes point on more and more calls that fall within county borders. (In an ironic twist, KVRS taught KFD's first vehicle extrication class.)
"Nine-one-one will send a city fire truck to an extrication or traffic injury call that's closer to the rescue squad," Blair says with a note of exasperation. "The best answer I've gotten is that the city is required by law to send one of their trucks. You can still send KFD, but you should always call the closest unit first. You can't let politics play a bigger role than the patient's well-being."
Blair says those calls are the glue that holds the squad together, the bread-and-butter that nourishes volunteer interest and sustains membership, and he offers compelling reasons why it's in the public's best interests for KVRS to flourish.
The squad's 1996 annual budget of less than $250,000 will enable more than 80 volunteers to keep $1.8 million worth of trucks, boats and other assorted rescue equipment in operation (almost all of the organization's maintenance and upkeep chores are done in-house), performing services that, save for small-scale vehicle extrication, no other local agency provides.
"The money we get would barely pay for our man-hours if all our people were paid an EMT's minimum salary," Blair says. "Unless you just forego those services, it would cost a lot less to have us than not to have us."
Given the nature of politics and the uncertainties of the proposed city-county merger, it's probably too early to predict what might happen to KVRS in the coming years--whether its day-to-day functions will be swallowed by other local agencies with less specialized training and equipment or whether some new hybrid government will decide it behooves us to continue channeling limited public funds into an organization that provides a vital but esoteric service.
But it's probably safe to predict that sometime--maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe next month--somebody somewhere in Knox County or its rugged hinterlands will slip on a rock coming down a steep mountain trail, or try to swim after one too many drinks at a summer lakeside party, or maybe wrap a car around a tree when a malignant country road pulls the asphalt out from underneath the wheels. When that happens, it's a pretty good bet that some cool-headed Knoxville Volunteer Rescue Squad veterans will hop in one of those bright green first responder trucks laden with tools and ropes and state-of-the-art gear, and do their damnedest to make a difference.